Schools find a new approach to wireless communication interoperability with Internet protocol technology
Wireless communications within our public schools became a hot-button issue following the 1999 Columbine High School shooting tragedy. No one could argue that our educational facilities needed improved interoperability tools that would provide instant and continuous two-way access to first responders during a major incident.
But in its aftermath, the lessons from Columbine have unfolded into a complex debate over how to provide interoperability among first responders such as police, fire and EMS, largely overlooking the needs of schools and other peripheral beneficiaries of wireless interoperability. As a result, school districts have been generally left to deploy wireless solutions on their own.
Like most individuals seeking to implement new wireless technologies, school administrators anticipate a host of political, technical and financial barriers will stand in their way of deploying a truly effective system. For instance, while many schools have a wireless network for internal communications, typically they are only campus-wide systems, operating on their own frequencies and channels. Thus, there is the common perception that in order to achieve interoperability, schools would need to buy all new radios in order for them to work together. And even if a school district standardized on common equipment and frequencies, how would the schools communicate with each other without constructing their own wide-area wireless network or leasing expensive analog lines from their telecom service provider?
In reality, the largest barrier school system administrators need to overcome is their own preconceived notion that wireless interoperability is too expensive and technically challenging for their available resources. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) has emerged as their simple and cost-effective wireless interoperability solution, enabling districts to create secure, systemwide networks that operate on computer and radio equipment already in place at most facilities.
IP’s Benefit for Schools
A subset of VoIP, radio over IP (RoIP) is the method by which analog signals transmitted by two-way radio are converted into digital packets. When a user speaks into a radio, a remote network adapter breaks the audio into compressed bits of data that is transmitted over an Ethernet-based IP network, captured by the appropriate recipient (determined by the media access control (MAC) address), decompressed and converted back to analog audio on the receiving end.
Since RoIP utilizes Ethernet, communications is possible to and from anywhere a user has access to a data network; most schools have some form of LAN or WAN network already in place. In addition, schools can use the two-way radios already in their possession-regardless of manufacturer or operating frequency. Each radio is assigned an IP address, which identifies the radio on the network and connects it to designated ports and addresses.
But perhaps an RoIP network’s greatest benefit for schools is the interoperability it can provide both within the school district as well as with first responders. Since the system doesn’t care what kind of radio is connected to it, equipment used by local first responders is easily established through crosspatches created by the dispatcher. And interoperability is not limited to two-way radios-it can include telephone systems, iDEN phones, satellite phones and intercom systems.
The application of RoIP for schools can range from the routine to the extreme. Consider how often a district office will need to inform its schools of severe weather in the area, for instance, and to get all children off the playground. Without direct two-way wireless communications with any number of its schools, the district would be required to contact each one individually, which could total a hundred or more phone calls in the larger districts.
Or in a more serious but increasingly common example, take into account the two-way communications required with emergency services personnel and even the school’s district security during a school lockdown or evacuation due to a potential neighborhood threat. While schools themselves are rarely in immanent danger, extreme caution in these instances is imperative to ensure student and faculty safety. Wireless equipment can enable administrators to stay in constant contact with local authorities and district headquarters while coordinating an appropriate response at the school. This would be nearly impossible if they relied solely on wireline communications.
Orange County Schools: Case in Point
Operating the 12th largest school system in the United States, Florida’s Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) is responsible for the education and safety of 175,000 students. Including the city of Orlando, Orange County covers a wide geographic region and densely populated areas, meaning that quick and efficient communications throughout the school district is imperative, especially during emergencies.
Orange County Security Office
Many of its schools already had internal wireless communications capabilities, but they were strictly local systems with no connection to the outside world. So while portable radios came in handy for coordinating fire drills, controlling crowds during sporting events and hailing custodians to messy bathrooms, they had little use in school safety and security.
If an emergency did take place, a school administrator could obviously dial 9-1-1 and speak with a dispatcher, but they were required to call the OCPS security office in Orlando as well, all while trying to maintain order during an evacuation or other frenzied event. This response method was inefficient and could pose a safety threat.
At some OCPS schools, administrators could immediately contact an onsite sheriff’s deputy who carried two radios-one for the school and the other that operated on the statewide 800 MHz trunked radio network. The deputy would then relay the message to his or her dispatcher. This response also introduced a time-consuming element, particularly if the deputy could not immediately be reached via the school’s radio or PA system.
Other incidents or situations required the district office to contact any number of schools to relay an important message. The only way for OCPS headquarters to communicate with the schools was to phone each one individually, which often proved a waste of valuable administrative time.
Regardless of the scenario, communications between OCPS headquarters and its 165 schools was not only inefficient, but posed a very real threat to student safety if a major incident required a quick and coordinated response by the district, first responders and the school itself. OCPS’ board was aware of the school system’s antiquated communications capabilities and began a quest for solutions, albeit with some pretty stringent requirements.
Like any other public school system, the school district’s resources have been stretched thin; it simply could not afford to buy all new equipment and build an expensive communications network. The school system had already invested significant amount of money into two-way radios and even repeaters in the larger schools. Though the radios were largely incompatible-some operating on VHF, others on UHF-OCPS insisted that their new solution make use of existing equipment.
They also required a system that would allow staff in each school to communicate amongst themselves and with the security office in Orlando. And as an added security measure, they wanted the ability to connect directly to first responders via the statewide 800 MHz public safety radio system.
OCPS first considered buying and placing one 800 MHz digital radio connected to the ASTRO statewide network at each facility, providing instant access to both the central security office and first responders. But this solution was ruled out because it meant only one person within each school would have outside network access, leaving everyone else in the dark. And it wouldn’t eliminate the need for the separate, internal radio network for day-to-day school communications, which still was an important part of their overall wireless strategy.
As they looked deeper into solutions, they realized IP was the answer to their communications interoperability problem. With minimal effort and expense, they could create a standardized radio network enabling all the schools to communicate with the district security office. IP would also enable direct wireless communications with the statewide 800 MHz radio system. And the perhaps the most attractive feature of IP technology to OCPS: it would allow them to make use of their existing equipment-including radios and even the computer network-already in place throughout the school district.
OCPS began rolling out its IP communications solution in mid-2005. The system consists of Kenwood mobile radios that serve as a base station in each building; a Telex/Vega IP-223 dual IP remote adapter panel at each facility for sending digital voice over the school district’s data network; and the Vega C-Soft VoIP software dispatch console at the security office for remotely monitoring and controlling the network.
The Kenwood radio is connected to the remote adapter panel and is programmed to the frequency and channels operated by each school’s current portable radios. It has two active channels: one is a talkaround channel, the other an emergency channel.
The IP-223 remote adapter panel converts analog signals transmitted by two-way radio into digital packets that are sent as data over the Ethernet network. It can control up to two base radios and has accessory equipment that allows for connectivity to and control of iDEN (Nextel) phones and standard analog telephone lines. The IP-223 operates in four distinct modes:
· Local: A radio connects to the IP-223 directly, allowing for simple system migration.
· Console: For use with existing tone-based legacy equipment, the IP-223 decodes the tone package from the back of the console and generates the appropriate Ethernet traffic.
· Tone mode: The IP-223 generates keytones required to control any tone-equipped radio circuit, allowing a connection to an existing radio.
· Crosspatch: Allows the mobile operator to establish a crosspatch to communicate with other users elsewhere within the system.
The C-Soft VoIP software dispatch console serves as the radio network’s hub. A Microsoft Windows-based application, C-Soft enables a PC with a full-duplex sound card and network connection to monitor and control all two-way radios on the network. The software is compatible with popular touch-screen monitors, offering the OCPS dispatcher a simple user interface by which to create talk groups and crosspatch other communications networks and equipment to the system such as the statewide 800 MHz radio network, iDEN phones and even school PA systems.
The IP Difference
With their previous method of responding to an incident, administrators would be on the telephone with an emergency dispatcher as well as district security headquarters, limiting their ability to oversee an evacuation or other critical safety measure. With wireless IP capabilities, they now have the ability to communicate with first responders and district security personnel-including providing progress reports and situation updates-while personally directing the activities.
The IP solution also saved the district money since they were not required to replace a single radio. The network is owned and maintained OCPS, which means they do not pay monthly airtime fees to a commercial wireless service provider. Their only capital expenditures were the mobile radios, IP remote adapter and software dispatch console.
The IP-based network will also grow with the district’s needs. More radios can be deployed at each school or additional schools can be added the system. And since it’s based on the IP standard, new equipment and infrastructure is easily integrated with the old.
OPCS initially deployed the equipment in about one-quarter of its schools with the help of a federal homeland security grant and is currently waiting for additional funding that will enable it to roll out the system to the remaining schools. The district has future plans to connect schools’ IP-223 remote adapter panel to their PA systems, enabling messages intended for everyone in a school, including students, faculty and staff, to be broadcast from headquarters. And in order to handle an anticipated increase in two-way radio traffic, the school district will add a second dispatch position at the security office.
In short, IP is an incredibly powerful interoperability tool for schools that can link disparate communications equipment on a common network. It can also help institutions create a wide-area radio network with minimal upfront cost, provided they have an Ethernet network in place. And most importantly, it is a stable, mission-critical platform, ensuring that instant wireless communications is available when needed most.